That blown call could stick in my craw, but I’m not going to let it. And you won’t, either. Because as time goes by, you’ll be thinking of our 2013 tournament appearance as the start of something, not as an opportunity missed.
Your memories of this March will be good, because as erratic and unpredictable as the 2012-13 Illini were for the entire year, there they were, trading punches with the ACC champion that got hosed out of a 1-seed because the nation blacked out for a second and forgot Gonzaga plays in the West Coast Conference. And this Miami game was a microcosm of the season – DJ went 1-11 but was critical defensively. Tracy no-showed in the first half and pulled a 180 in the second. Nnanna threw up a 12-12 as this rebounding-challenged team beat Miami on the boards (!). Brandon Paul did Brandon Paul things. It was alternately maddening, gorgeous, and nerve-wracking, but it was consistently one thing: fun. Which is why we’re in this anyway, right?
And you have one guy to thank for that, and it’s John Groce. I don’t want that to sound like I’m shortchanging the players, because I’m not – I’m gonna miss watching DJ, Tyler, BP3 and Sam. But went the sun went down on February 3, we had lost 6 of 7, and four in a row at home. It would have been easy for any team to fall apart at that point, but especially this team, who went through the exact same scenario last year. Minus a lottery pick center and in an even tougher edition of the conference, you certainly wouldn’t be surprised if they threw in the towel. I did.
Of course, we know what happened next. Beat #1. Go win in #18’s house. Battle into the tournament as a 7-seed in a year where we were hands-down expected to be, at best, in the NIT. There’s only one key difference from last year to now, and it’s Groce. Re-reading what I wrote when he was hired, I’m actually pleasantly surprised by how “wait-and-see” I was, but I still couldn’t resist snidely saying that Mike Thomas “reached on an error” with this hire. But I did get this part right:
once the season starts, just show improvement and play a style that doesn’t make blood spurt from our fans’ collective eyes. Run a successful play out of a timeout. We’ve forgotten what that’s like.
The bar really was that low. But Groce cleared it by miles and kept going. One of the other things I’ll remember about this Miami game is sudden B1G cynic Charles Barkley heaping praise on Groce’s coaching job on the postgame show, noting that it’s really impressive when a coach can get players to “run through the fire” with him.
The end of the season was still fresh, but I found myself struck by the fact that those statements would never have been uttered by anyone at the end of any of our seasons in a long, long time. And I knew we were on our way back, and that basketball would stay fun, like it’s meant to be.